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Ohio State cans Cooper

Coach fired after 13 seasons in Columbus

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Posted: Tuesday January 02, 2001 11:44 AM
Updated: Tuesday January 02, 2001 9:43 PM

  John Cooper John Cooper is 111-43-4 in 13 seasons at Ohio State, winning a share of the Big Ten title three times. Tom Pidgeon/Allsport

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) -- Four years and a day after his players carried him off the field at the Rose Bowl, Ohio State coach John Cooper was fired because of a "deteriorating climate within the football program."

Athletics director Andy Geiger said he decided early Tuesday morning that it was time for Ohio State to make a change after Cooper's bowl record sank to 3-8 with Monday's 24-7 loss to unranked South Carolina in the Outback Bowl.

"It did not hinge on winning or losing the Outback Bowl, although I would say that yesterday was sort of a capstone on what we have seen as a deteriorating climate within the football program," Geiger said. "Concern about discipline, competitiveness, academic pursuits, a whole series of things.

"I thought yesterday, unfortunately, was an exhibit of all those things rolled into one."

Cooper said he was shocked that he was fired and had hoped to coach at least one more season and may coach again somewhere. "There will be a lot of times where I won't know what I will do with my time," he said.

Cooper disputed the concerns mentioned by Geiger. Cooper said he could not think of an off the field problem this year that affected his team.

Cooper said he expects Ohio State to get a top flight coach as his replacement, but he would like defensive coordinator Fred Pagac get the job.

Ohio State will pay Cooper $1.8 million to buy out the last three years of his contract, which paid him more than $1 million per season.

Although favored in Monday's game, Ohio State lost 24-7 to South Carolina. Lou Holtz's team had gone 0-11 a year ago and was the only unranked team playing in a New Year's Day game this year.

In the weeks leading up to the Outback Bowl, a starting wide-out fell off the team with a 0.00 grade-point average, the team MVP and leading rusher was held out of the starting lineup for missing the first practice in Tampa, and one offensive lineman sued another for $50,000 in the wake of an on-field fight in the spring.

The fall was precipitous for Cooper, 63, whose teams went 111-43-4 and finished second in the final AP poll in 1997 and again in 1999.

His tenure was the second longest for an Ohio State football coach, exceeded only by Woody Hayes, who went 205-61-10 in 28 seasons with the Buckeyes. Only Hayes won more games at Ohio State than Cooper did.

But Cooper's Buckeyes also struggled in big games. Cooper was just 2-10-1 against archrival Michigan to go with his 3-8 bowl record. Six times in his 13 years, the Buckeyes closed out their season with consecutive losses to Michigan and in a bowl game.

Cooper became Ohio State's 21st head coach on Dec. 31, 1987.

Earle Bruce, the coach for nine seasons, had compiled a record of 81-26-1, a winning percentage of .755. But Bruce, a former player and assistant at Ohio State under Hayes, was fired by OSU president Edward H. Jennings two days after a last-second 29-27 loss to Iowa. When told by Jennings to fire Bruce, athletics director Rick Bay resigned. He had opposed the firing.

Cooper had won the Rose Bowl just two years before while at Arizona State. He had a career record of 82-40-2 in 11 years as a head coach at ASU and also Tulsa, and had also been an assistant at Iowa State, Oregon State, UCLA, Kansas and Kentucky.

Ohio State officials said Arizona State's 22-15 victory over Michigan in the 1986 Rose Bowl was a key factor in their decision to hire Cooper.

At the news conference introducing him at Ohio State, Cooper said, "I want to try and win a national championship, and, quite frankly, I feel I've got a better chance to do it at Ohio State than Arizona State."

Cooper could not lead the Buckeyes to a national title -- its last one was in 1968 -- but he came close.

In 1995, the Buckeyes won their first 11 games before losing at No. 12 Michigan, 31-23. Five weeks later, Ohio State lost to Tennessee 20-14 in the Florida Citrus Bowl.

The 1996 team won its first 10 games and was ranked No. 2 when it fell to No. 21 Michigan, 13-9. That team rebounded to edge Arizona State 20-17 in the Rose Bowl in the final seconds. His team hoisted him on its shoulders and carried him off the field.

Ranked No. 1 in the preseason, the 1998 team stayed atop the polls until Nov. 7, when it lost to 17-point underdog Michigan State. The Buckeyes won their last three games, including victories over Michigan and against Texas A&M in the Sugar Bowl, to again finish No. 2 in the final rankings.

Cooper once said he would always pale in comparison to the revered Hayes, who died in 1987.

"A lot of people are never going to like me," Cooper said.

The heat was turned up after a 6-6 season in 1999 in which the Buckeyes closed with three consecutive losses and then failed to make a bowl trip for the first time since Cooper's first season.

This year, the Buckeyes won their first five games to climb into the top 10 but faltered down the stretch.

Minnesota, coached by a former Ohio State player and Hayes assistant Glen Mason, upset the Buckeyes 29-17. Mason, who may be a top candidate to replace Cooper, said he cried on the way to the game when he thought how much Ohio State had meant to his career.

Purdue's Drew Brees tossed a 64-yard touchdown pass to Seth Morales with 1:55 left to give the Boilermakers a 31-27 win over Ohio State and take the inside track to the Rose Bowl.

Subsequent upsets still gave the Buckeyes a shot at winning a share of the conference title, but Michigan overcame a 9-0 deficit and stopped the Buckeyes late for a 38-26 victory.

Geiger said he had no answers for what went wrong with the football program under Cooper.

"I wish I could explain it but there has been a slide and it's why we're here," Geiger said.

Asked Tuesday evening about losses to Michigan and in the bowl games Cooper said, "I'm sure that was a big factor, and the reason I won't be coaching here anymore."

Cooper said that he will continue to make Columbus his home.

"I had 13 good years here. We won a lot of games. We love Columbus, Ohio...I will support the next coach at Ohio State."

For now, Cooper said he'll find something to do, "maybe shovel snow." Nodding to his new granddaughter, he said, "I told Cindy [his daughter] she's got a free babysitter for a while."

Related information
SI's Tim Layden: Cooper was in a no-win situation
Led by backup, Gamecocks run all over Ohio State
Ohio State tackle sues teammate over punch
Ohio State's Germany to miss Outback Bowl
Ohio State A.D. Andy Geiger says changes were necessary for reasons extending beyond wins and losses. (227 K)
John Cooper believes Geiger has had his eye on someone else for quite some time. (195 K)
Cooper insists all coaches are doomed to the same fate. (91 K)
Geiger points out that Cooper's record against Michigan and in bowl games can't be thrown out or ignored. (125 K)
Florida State head coach Bobby Bowden believes Cooper got a raw deal. (133 K)
Oklahoma head coach Bob Stoops admires Cooper for what he accomplished in Columbus. (214 K)
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